First off, I should probably say that I cannot be totally impartial when reviewing anything related to Life is Strange. That game had a profound impact on me, and, from a storytelling perspective, is one of my all time favorite pieces of media, let alone just video games. Accordingly, I had extremely high expectations for “Awake,” the first episode of the just-released prequel Life is Strange: Before the Storm.
Set well after the death of Chloe’s father William, but years before the events of the original game, Deck Nine’s Before the Storm follows a similar narrative and gameplay style to the original. Playing as Chloe Price rather than a still absent Maxine Caulfield, you enter into the beginning of her relationship with Rachel Amber and the subtly supernatural lead up to the eponymous storm at the ultimate conclusion(s) of Chloe’s story. The gameplay mechanics replace Max’s time-rewinding skills with Chloe’s ability to shit-talk her way out of anything (or at least fail to do so in an intense and often amusing way), but retain the core mechanics of decision-based interactive cutscenes interspersed with walking simulator-type gameplay.
I expected that this game, while technically a prologue, would serve as a form of “emotional epilogue” to Season 1 of the main game from Dontnod, since Season 2 will focus on entirely new stories and characters. In that regard, and many others, Before the Storm has largely succeeded in giving me what I most wanted from it: more Life is Strange, and particularly more Chloe Price.
Spoilers after the break!
For those unfamiliar, Life is Strange is an episodic game that resembles an interactive television show both thematically and structurally. Each episode starts with a “previously on” and ends with a cliffhanger, collectively forming a “season” which tells the complete story. As the game progresses, the player makes decisions which impact the narrative, often in subtle ways that take several episodes to become apparent. Season 1 of the show featured Maxine “Max” Caulfield and Chloe Price in a supernatural coming-of-age story centered around using a form of time travel to determine who is responsible for the disappearance and possible murder of Rachel Amber as they try to stop a massive tornado from destroying the town of Arcadia Bay in the game’s conclusion. Though it it not yet certain what, if any, connections to a larger story will exist in Season 2, it is confirmed that the characters and plot will be independent from Season 1. Since Max and Chloe were so important to so many people, however, a prologue by a different creative team was announced as a sort of farewell to the characters. Before the Storm is that prologue, taking the form of a three-episode “mini-season” about Chloe and Rachel and a single “bonus episode” about Max.
One of the things that impacted me most about Season 1 of the original Life is Strange is the connection I felt to its protagonist, Max Caulfield. Throughout that game I felt a simultaneous personal connection to Max and a sort of paternal instinct; I was both very comfortable walking in her shoes and had a recurring impulse to want to jump through the monitor and console her or keep her safe. There were moments in “Dark Room“ and “Polarized“ in particular where I felt genuine trauma and, I say this in the best possible way, that game totally fucked me up. But as strong as that dualistic connection to Max was, Chloe threw in a third factor. Not only did I feel represented in Chloe attimes and that same quasi-parental need to take a bullet for her at times… many times… (spoiler: Chloe does not get shot in this episode!) but there were moments where Chloe was among my all-time fictional crushes and I found myself really wanting Max to end up with her. I have played Season 1 of LiS three times in full and every time I sacrifice Arcadia because, though I’ve watched it with others and on YouTube, I cannot bring myself to push that button to make Chloe not exist. So how did those even more extremely high expectations for Chloe measure up? Very well indeed.
The award-winning voice acting of Ashly Burch was a huge factor in fueling that connection to Chloe, so it’s initially difficult to get used to the fact that the voices all sound different, especially Chloe’s. But Rhianna DeVries’s work does right by the character and the cadence and tone are still thoroughly Chloe, especially given that Chloe is 16 in this game rather than 19. The overall tone of the game’s style initially comes off as trying too hard to replicate the original; but as I became used to the visual, gameplay, and voice differences, it started to feel more like a careful homage and fan-focused continuation. I also, somehow, did not initially realize Burch was a writer on this episode (Zak Garriss is credited as lead writer on IMDb, but the game credits prominently credit Burch) and that seems apparent not only in the slightly less forced YA dialogue in “Awake” compared to “Chrysalis”, but also in the obvious care taken to make Chloe’s dialogue actually sound like Chloe.
We are reintroduced to a younger, non-blue-haired, Chloe when she plays chicken with a train and casually jumps aside at the last minute. The scene is not only a visual reference to early scenes with Chloe and Max in “Chrysalis”, but establishes Chloe as already being on a path of casual self-destruction and instinctive rebelliousness. At one point principal Wells even tells her “you never fail to conform to your reputation” (depending on dialogue choices). In addition to the solid choice to swap Max’s photography minigame from Season 1 with a multi-option graffiti minigame for Chloe in BtS, that is the driving force behind the game’s central mechanic. While there is some implication that her dreams, in which she flashes back to William’s accident though she was not in the car with him, are more than just dreams, and the potential of aftereffects from the alternate timeline from Season 1 is hinted at, Chloe does not have any supernatural powers. Instead of being able to rewind time and make the “correct choices” in dialogue, you need to pay attention and gather information to know the best way to talk your way through things. These conversational challenges are often timed, and Chloe must make a certain number of correct decisions before she says the wrong thing too many times.
In addition to the “your choices matter” aspect taking on greater significance (as you can’t rewind unless you reload the last checkpoint), this also highlights the fact that though it is possible to play Before the Storm without having played the original… you won’t get nearly as much out of it and it’s harder. It’s very much a love letter to the story from LiS Season 1 and it is very much aimed at people who played that game in its entirety and understand how the dialogue/choices system works. There are foreshadowy things everywhere, including the “air lines” visual motif returning from the original. There’s even a moment where Chloe jokes about how much she hates cliffhangers; something that goes from being a seeming throwaway line to a dark in-joke about the absolutely horrific cliffhangers in store for her in a few years. Which brings us to, arguably, the most intriguing thing in this game for the existing fans: Rachel Amber.
One of the things LiS has been criticized for is the way it seems to dance around queer sexuality while simultaneously seeming to make it an implicitly core part of the narrative; particularly the endings and the sometimes “intentionally overvague” descriptions of Chloe and Rachel’s relationship. Season 1 often seemed to hobble the lesbian storyline (Pricefield forever!) in favor of pointing out that there was technically (sorry Warren) a heterosexual option, but Before the Storm’s first episode seems to take the opposite approach. It is possible to play the interactions between Chloe and Rachel as “instant BFFs,” but the game very heavily implies that the explicitly gay romantic and sexual options are the “canon” choices. This is even directly examined in one of Chloe’s early journal entries, where she talks about Pris (from Blade Runner) taking the place of Dekkard in her sexual fantasy the last time she was masturbating and is surprised, but not upset or deeply confused, about it.
In addition to the direct and unambiguous proof that Chloe is at least questioning her sexuality, this demonstrates that Before the Storm is willing to present female sexuality, specifically queer female sexuality, as a non-fetishized, direct, and important part of the coming-of-age genre. Reading the journal entries (most of which take the form of letters to Max that Chloe has no intention of sending) and seeing how Chloe and Rachel are presented, by the cinematography and the scoring in addition to actual dialogue, as a first-time lesbian couple, seemed like a direct response to criticism of what some described as queerbaiting in the franchise’s first season. This was, in my opinion, successful, as the “love at first sight moment” from Blue is the Warmest Color actually came to mind. The portrayal of Rachel and Chloe’s relationship as a romantic one is, again, seemingly presented as the “correct choice.” There is a line where Rachel Amber says:
“Whatever’s going on between us it’s… intense, and new, and awesome and… you had the courage to tell me that you feel it too.”
If that is the product of Ashly Burch’s creative input, I will happily trade her unbelievable voice acting skills for more of that narrative in the next two episodes. Even though there are dialogue trees that are slightly confusing if you make the “wrong” choices, the overall effect is both a solid reaction to that criticism and fits the existing narrative perfectly.
Without spoiling everything, this culminates in the ability to have Chloe explicitly tell Rachel Amber that she is attracted to her “like a friendship. But… more.” and for Rachel Amber to reciprocate. It is unclear how the “just friends” options will diverge in future episodes of BtS, as is the nature of possible options involving Frank the dealer or Chloe’s boyfriend Eliot. We don’t get much exposition about Eliot, but Chloe’s journals imply she is feeling distant from him, and we even see a moment that recalls Warren asking Max out to the movies, awkwardness and evasiveness intact. It is, however, at least implied that the potential to have Chloe tell her boyfriend that she’s leaving him for a woman will exist in future episodes.
Aside from the main plot with Rachel Amber, a lot of other stories that we saw climaxing (or in some cases revisited) in LiS Season 1 are touched on in BtS. Everything from the beginnings of the Prescotts’ vaguely evil designs for Arcadia to Chloe’s war with her not-yet-stepdouche is there in some form, as are hints of the supernatural events to come. In most of these moments, if not quite all, the essential vibe of the game remains true to the series. The roleplaying aspect of the prequel also seems more developed than Season 1 (in another self-reflexive moment, you can play an entire level of an in-game tabletop RPG) but it is almost impossible to avoid thinking in terms of “what would Chloe do?” and the game often directly embraces that mindset as a prerequisite. This is self-referentially referred to in the form of continued references to Twin Peaks and its relationship to Fire Walk With Me as a prequel that you need knowledge of the following series to really understand.
All in all, while there were some minor technical issues (a few bits where the audio mixing of the dialogue and background soundscape was noticeably off, and where DOF effects were applied to scenery but not characters) and it’s not yet hit the highs of the existing episodes, “Awake” was a solid entry in the Life is Strange franchise and thus far Before the Storm can at the very least be called worthy of the LiS title. What we have seen so far is at about on par with “Chrysalis” and even “Out of Time“ and, at its absolute best moments, is almost already up there with the best LiS has to offer. One thing I can say with certainty is that, much like the first game, I will be very eagerly anticipating the next two episodes as well as the Max-led “bonus episode.” My expectations remain high.
(Note: This is not a paid review and I bought my copy full price on Steam.)